In 1972, a Mainichi Shimbun journalist, Takichi Nishiyama, was prosecuted for disclosing a secret Japan-U.S. agreement whereby Japan would shoulder $4 million of the expenses for the transfer of Okinawa back to Japanese sovereignty. The government insisted there was no secret agreement.

Four million dollars was not a large amount — disclosed U.S. records have since shown secret agreements for more than $200 million. But even after the text of the $4 million agreement was released by the U.S. under its statuary 25 year declassification rule, Tokyo continued to insist there were no secret agreements. But how can you prosecute someone for disclosing a document you say does not exist?

In 2006 the declassified document was shown on television together with former Gaimusho North Americas Bureau chief Bunroku Yoshino, whose signature lay at the bottom. Earlier when serving in the Gaimusho Yoshino had denied the existence of the agreement. But in retirement he was quite happy to appear before the public agreeing that the signature shown on the document was indeed his own. Yet questioned in the Diet, Shinzo Abe, then chief Cabinet secretary, continued to insist that the document did not exist.

We are often told about the tatemae and honne duality in Japanese morality — the one that allows you to say one thing even when you know the opposite to be true. But this, surely, is going too far.

Nor is it the only example. In 1951 Japan signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty, which said unambiguously that Japan had renounced all right, claim and title the Kurile Islands. Questioned in the Diet on Oct. 19, 1951, the head of the Foreign Ministry’s Legal Affairs Bureau, Kumao Nishimura, agreed that the Kurile Islands mentioned in the treaty included the southern Kuriles islands of Etorufu and Kunashiri.

Yet just four years later Tokyo began to insist that these two islands were not included, that they were part of something called the Northern Territories — which it claimed as its own. As for the Nishimura statement, various officials at various times have insisted that it was for domestic consumption only, or that it was a mistake, or that it has since been retracted, or that it does not even exist (even though I have a copy taken from the Diet verbatim records).

Yet on this flimsy basis Tokyo continues to insist that it never renounced its claim to the two islands and that unless they are returned not just a peace treaty but also normal relations with its important northern neighbor in the former Soviet Union will continue to be refused. It comes down heavily on any opinion or policy leader who dares say otherwise.

China, too, suffers from this split morality. In 1972 and 1978 it seems clear that in talks with Beijing on opening relations, both Japan and China agreed verbally to shelve the issue of ownership of the Senkaku islands in the East China sea. Even Japanese journalists and ex-Foreign Ministry officials present at the talks agree that there was such an agreement. But Tokyo denies point blank that there was any agreement and is even prepared to accept long-term confrontation over the issue.

Toward North Korea it seems that anything can go. First Tokyo reneges on a 2002 promise that the five former abductees allowed to visit Japan that year should then be allowed to return to families back in Pyongyang. Then it insists, contrary to all scientific evidence, that an improbable DNA test on some charred bones proves that North Korea is lying when it says there no more abductees in North Korea. On this basis it imposes severe sanctions on North Korea and reneges on a promise to open a relations office in North Korea that would be needed to help discover whether in fact there were more abductees.

As it seeks allies in its growing confrontation with China, Tokyo makes much of its shared democratic values with Western and hoped for Asian allies. One of those key values is the willingness to debate and accept contrary views. But in Japan critical views are not welcomed. Tokyo is now revising its school textbooks so that they present only official Japanese view on foreign policy questions. Are these supposed to be Western democratic values? They seem much closer to those of the dictatorial, non-democratic societies, like the China that Japan criticizes.

Various factors seem involved in Tokyo’s strange behavior. One is the cleanliness factor — the desire to put a lid on messy situations syndrome (kusai mono ni futa wo suru). That can be admirable in some situations. But not when it is used to justify the destruction or hiding of crucial documents. Another is the belief that I have run into when writing about Japan, namely that there is one reality for Japan and other for the rest of the world — the isolationist, head-in-the-sand syndrome. So revelations of global spying activities by Western powers can be shrugged off as some weird foreigner activity, even when Japan is a victim. And then there is the strange kotodama concept — the idea that words have their own spirit. So statements constantly repeated can change the reality, even when they are not true or certain. Denials have the opposite effect, and should be silenced.

It all takes me back to the days I once spent in the “nuclear village” safety committees where they seemed to think that if they constantly repeated the mantra of nuclear safety, and ignored the critics, then Japan would be safe from accidents. To voice the possibility of accidents would somehow encourage accidents. Also, we were told, nuclear accidents were something that happened to other people but not to Japan — more head in the sand.

We now realize these were not very good ways to run a nuclear energy program. Nor do they make for good foreign policies.

Gregory Clark, a former Australian diplomat and commentator, is a long resident in Japan. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.